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Research on Key Unmanned Systems Technology Based on a Minimally-Invasive Approach

Gaining International Attention on PIBOT, a Humanoid Robot that Flies an Airplane

"PIBOT is a humanoid robot that can sit in a normal cockpit and perform the entire flight sequence from takeoff to landing, using regular control sticks and instrument panel. The robot can handle these operations without mistakes once it learns how to use all of the buttons and switches in the cockpit of an aircraft. PIBOT is able to make the airplane land on the runway safely using accurate measurement of the aircraft motion, much more precisely than a human pilot can. This research is the direct outcome by "Key Unmanned Systems Technology with Minimal Invasion” project.

Development of a humanoid pilot robot for unmanned aerial vehicles

The recent series of aircraft crashes has brought a global attention on the safety issues involving the proficiency and qualification of human pilots. Coincidently, Prof. David Hyunchul Shim at the KAIST Institute for Robotics (KIR) proposed an interesting technology called “PIBOT” (PIlot+roBOT) a humanoid robot equipped with machine intelligence. PIBOT technology is a culmination of the recent advances in robotics and unmanned vehicle technology in a minimally-invasive manner.

The methods of developing an unmanned aircraft can be divided into two. One way is to develop a dedicated unmanned aircraft with customized airplane design and built-in actuators. However, this is time-consuming and expensive, and it requires entirely new design and certification process. The other is to automate an existing airplane with additional flight control systems. Although this process does not require additional certification of the aircraft, but the aircraft still needs vast amount of modification on the flight control and various switches and dials.

As an alternative to these two existing approaches, Prof. Shim's team has developed a humanoid robot that can be put into the pilot’s seat, where the robot manipulates various control apparatus, sticks, dials, and switches. In this manner, the cockpit does not require any modification at all, and therefore the entire automation process can be very easily done by simply putting the robot in the aircraft and specify the type of the craft. The team has carried out a study to validate the feasibility of the proposed system by putting the robot into a series of flight routine in a full-scale aircraft cockpit.

The robot pilot consists of the humanoid robot body and the software to control the aircraft. The robot has two arms, two legs and a set of software that enables the robot to control any assigned vehicle. Powered by the software, the robot understands the airplane’s states such as position, velocity, attitude, and various actions to perform. In a typical sequence, the robot starts with turning on the electrical system, starting the engine, taxiing, taking off, climbing, cruising, descending, approaching and landing, and post-landing procedures. PIBOT can handle all of these sequences with a great accuracy and a repeatability beyond a human pilot.

PIBOT receives the information of the host airplane through the network, which is more advantageous than a human pilot, who has to interact with the instrument panel only. During the simulation, the airplane information is transmitted from a flight simulator (X-Plane), and based on the information, PIBOT understands the status of the airplane. PIBOT can also send the commands over network if allowed, but the normal point of access will be conventional mechanical interfaces such as control knobs and sticks.

If the technology to fly planes piloted entirely by computers is advanced further, there will be no need for a real person to perform test flights for the development of a new aircraft. Europe's Airbus asked the research team whether it is possible to use PIBOT for the test flight of its newly-developed E-fan electric aircraft. In wartime, it would be possible to have a robot pilot fly outdated aircrafts for the purpose of reconnaissance over enemy territory, and in small- and medium-sized airplanes that do not have automated flight control, a PIBOT can substitute for the co-pilot, which is economically advantageous. Prof. Shim's PIBOT team has been invited to 2016 “summer Davos”, or Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2016 in Tianjin, China, in June. In overall, beyond simple application to unmanned aircraft, PIBOT research has been recognized as one of the ground-breaking technologies for future, where human role can be aided or even replaced with intelligent robots. Stay tuned for further developments… one day the robot may actually fly a real aircraft in not too distant future.

Prof. Shim, David Hyunchul
2015 Annual Report

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